We drive around in circles trying to find the place. There's no signage indicating our destination -- no giant, looming cartoon characters or even a logo, just a faceless building in a maze of industrial parks, about 17 miles outside of Portland. It's a beautiful drive of course, sandwiched on a vaguely winding highway by dense Pacific Northwest foliage, past Nike's global headquarters. Compared to the world-class tracks and fields dotting the shoemaker's campus, Laika's own offices are an exercise in modesty (in spite of financial ties to Phil Knight), virtually indistinguishable from the densely packed businesses that surround it. There are, perhaps, certain advantages to such anonymity -- for one thing, it helps the studio avoid random drop-ins by movie fans hoping to chew the ear off of their animation heroes. It also means that our cab driver does a good three passes before finally getting out of the car and asking a smoker standing outside a nearby building where to go. He thinks about it for a moment and indicates a building -- a large, but otherwise indistinguishable space.
The lobby doesn't scream Hollywood either, but it certainly offers some less-than-subtle hints that we've found the place: a wall-sized black and white image of classic film cameras (ancient devices, someone tells me, that were utilized on the company's previous film), and in one corner, a tiny room encased in glass, with Coraline seated at a table in its center. This building is the house that she built -- or at least kept the lights on; "Coraline" was released after its planned successor "Jack & Ben's Animated Adventure" failed to materialize. Inside, the cavernous space in excess of 150,000 square feet has become a bustling small town of creatives, laboring away in its recesses, many having traveled through several time zones to be in its rank, like carnies hopping from town to town. Stop-motion animation, after all, isn't the most prevalent of professions, and while we've arguably entered a sort of golden age for the infamously labor-intensive art form, thanks in large part to the success of projects like "Coraline," the number of studios actually investing in the form can be counted on one hand.
Gallery: How 3D printing changed the face of 'ParaNorman' | 44 Photos
There's Aardman in the UK, perhaps the best known amongst them, thanks to the success of signature series "Wallace and Grommit." Tim Burton has certainly been a proponent of the form as well, with a few projects under his belt, including the upcoming re-imagining of his own mid-'80s short film "Frankenweenie." And then there's "Coraline" / "The Nightmare Before Christmas" director Henry Selick, off the Laika payroll since 2009, who was hard at work on a project of his own, until it was unceremoniously shuttered this week by Disney. During production, Selick managed to maintain a fair amount of radio silence on the project, a rather admirable accomplishment, seeing as how practically everyone in the industry (if you can call it that) above the age of 25 has his or her fair share of war stories from competing studios. And as various employees' roles in the studio's most recent project begin to draw to a close, there's a sort of bittersweetness in the air, like the final days of summer camp, with animators and sculpture artists and 3D modelers preparing to move on to wherever the next job might take them.
Not that there's a particular abundance of on-site socializing, judging from our short, closely-guarded tour around the premises. The job of the stop-motion animator is, as one imagines, a fairly solitary undertaking. Behind black curtains and flashing red lights are closed sets consisting of a single human being bent over giant exterior and interior models for hours on end in the pursuit of cobbling together a few seconds of cinematic magic. From this perspective, not all that much has changed, the traditional image of a stop-motion animator moving arms and legs by barely calculable lengths, one frame at a time, is still the heart and soul of the process. The supporting technology, on the other hand, is a different story altogether, with animators monitoring their own Sisyphean progress seconds at a time on state-of-the-art production computers just off to the side.
The characters themselves, too, have evolved significantly, fleshed out on top of complex metal armatures, measuring around 10 or so inches high. The true complexity, however, lies in the faces of the 178 puppets created for the hour-and-a-half long, kid-friendly occult comedy. We watch an animator subtly manipulate the face of a zombie in what appears to be a gathering of the undead in a library setting, adjusting the paddles and gears beneath its silicone skin, a far more precise method of animating facial features than its clay-based predecessor. But even that technique has begun to appear dated, a remnant of older methods that proved particularly suited to the needs of "ParaNorman," whose bad guys possess the characteristically belabored movements of the undead.
"I started to realize that this was the element that had been missing. The computer could now be a tool [to bridge] the unreal with the physical world."
"All the zombies were mechanical animation," explains Brian McLean. "It suited itself really well to zombies, because the zombies were sort of the slumbering characters and their jaws were slapping back and forth." Laika bestowed upon McLean the admittedly enviable title "Director of Rapid Prototyping," charging him with heading up the technology which, for the studio, has largely eclipsed the paddles and gears of mechanical animation. Like many of his contemporaries, McLean's entry into the field was a traditional one, garnering a degree in fine arts that helped him score gigs as a model maker and sculptor. "I did that for many years," he explains. "Years later, I was first introduced to the 3D printer, and I started to realize that this was the element that had been missing. The computer could now be a tool and you were sort of bridging the unreal with the physical world."
It's a technology Laika began experimenting with for "Coraline," convinced that it might allow for a spectrum of facial expressions simply not achievable through the mechanical method. The company invested in an PolyJet plastic printer, a $110,000 investment (though that price has come down considerably in subsequent years) in a technology traditionally used by manufacturers to print out 3D prototypes of industrial designs. It's a quick method for transforming computerized concepts into real-world objects, from gadgets to airplanes to tennis shoes to appliances. The technology is not too dissimilar from the budget 3D printers making their ways into the homes and garages of hobbyists. Nor, for that matter, is it far-removed from more traditional inkjet printing, spraying down a minute amount of resin (15 microns, according to McLean's numbers), layer by layer, which is cured by the machine's built-in UV lights. Laika put the technology to work printing "replacement faces" that could be attached to the head of a character, giving young Coraline a grand total of around 200,000 expressions. It's an impressive number, particularly when placed up against the 800 or so expressions Jack Skellington was capable of achieving in "The Nightmare Before Christmas." By "ParaNorman," however, the studio had rapid prototyping down to a science, with the movie's fuzzy-haired protagonist (that's 275 tightly bundled strands) able to express himself a staggering 1.5 million ways, according to Laika's number crunching -- orders of magnitude more than the actual artists who created the 9-inch hero.
Part of the expansion came in the form of a newly adopted 3D-printing technology, running side-by-side with the older model. The ZPrinter 650 from 3D Systems brings a key element to the table missing in the technology brought on board for "Coraline" -- color. Faces were hand-painted for the older film, presenting a clear issue for stop-motion animators -- should the place of a cheek's blush move slightly from frame to frame, the difference would prove painfully obvious when the subject is animated. On "Coraline," the animators came up with workarounds, such as physical indicators for the placement of freckles. With the introduction of the new printing technology, Laika had a way of incorporating the paint jobs into the printing process itself, meaning that the painting could be done on the computer, with Photoshop used to color flattened versions of 3D models. The 3D Systems machine works by printing on powder, spraying different colored glues onto thin levels of the material. "A good way to describe it is (it's) similar to dragging flour on your kitchen table and spritzing a section of it with a water spritzer, letting that dry and then dragging more flour and spritzing and repeating," explains McLean. "Gradually you're going to end up with a lump of flour surrounded by unhardened flour. So you then reach into the printer and brush off the powder and you're left with a part that this glue is barely holding it together."
"At the time, 'Coraline' was the pinnacle of stop-motion animated films and I think that 'ParaNorman' has just risen the bar that much further."
When the process is finished, you're left with a large mass of powder, with a 3D-printed object inside. You can excavate it or just wait for the machine's vacuums to go into action, storing the powder away for future jobs. The technology, while streamlining certain aspects of the process, has created several new classes of jobs at Laika, beyond McLean's own futuristic-sounding title. There's the group of four employees that sit around in a circle, sanding the powdered faces, which are then dipped in superglue to harden, a process that also helps make the glue-created colors all the more vibrant. Once finished, the faces get sent to a library to be cataloged among some 30,000 faces in plastic Tupperware-like containers, where they can be checked out with help from a librarian. The appropriate pieces for dialogues and expressions are determined with the help of a facial animation specialist and compiled on a sheet that helps the animator determine which kits (smile, frown, et al) to check out from the library. The faces are segmented into pieces, allowing for the massive number of potential expression combinations. And while stop-motion is oft considered a traditional sort of opposition to the CG animation explosion, a certain amount of computer magic has to be performed to remove the visible gaps between facial pieces, as well as other aspects like clamps and dollies used to support the puppets on set.
But while the new technology has eclipsed its predecessor when it comes to printing faces, Laika keeps both running side-by-side in a room reserved for 3D printers. The PolyJet is better-suited for the creation of things like tools that require moving parts -- a process the studio demonstrates by printing us up a batch of branded translucent crescent wrenches with spinning adjusters, no assembly required. But even between these two technologies, it's pretty clear that Laika understands that it's only scratching the powdery surface of possibilities when it comes utilizing 3D printing in the creation of stop-motion films. Asked whether the studio's next feature will incorporate it in some form, McLean doesn't hesitate. "Yes, I would say so," he answers, simply. "I think it's a huge quantum leap on multiple levels between "Coraline" and 'ParaNorman.' At the time, 'Coraline' was the pinnacle of stop-motion animated films and I think that 'ParaNorman' has just risen the bar that much further."